We had just spent the morning talking to his bouncing pupils, aged three to ten, and were ready for a break. So we strolled up the road, nodding to the disinterested border patrol guards, and jumped over a storm drain into Nepal. It hardly felt like moving into another country, but the frisson that goes with flouting the rules turned lunch into a small adventure.
Over a few ill-gotten Nepali beers and nefarious noodles with our new friends, we asked where we should go for the best view of Kanchenjunga, India’s highest peak. They told us to avoid Tiger Hill where droves of “those noisy Indian tourists go by Jeep every morning”. Instead, they insisted we should try 10,170ft Tonglu, because it offers a closer (just) and clearer view.
“It’s also a very pleasant morning’s walk,” said our friend Jiwan over the top of his beer glass.
It didn’t take them long to persuade us that despite our creaky knees and general lack of fitness we’d easily manage a two day trek in the Singalila National Park. By the time we arrived back in India they had arranged for Pemba, a recently qualified guide, to accompany us.
So the following day off we set, just after sunrise.
Our guide turned out to be a 21 year old local student eager to practice his new job and excellent English on us, we were delighted to be his guinea pigs. We soon learned, however, that the Nepali idea of an easy walk is quite different from our own (either that or Jiwan had a mischievous sense of humour). The first day included the steepest part of the journey and took eight hours. It drizzled. It thundered. The lightning crashed around us. Not for nothing was Darjeeling named by Tibetans the ‘Land of Thunderbolts’. In fact it rained during the entire trek.
We met some of Pemba’s friends and family along the way, and drank an odd (to our western palettes) salty, buttery tea. In fact we gulped down anything they threw at us, including rakhi, a kind of Himalayan poitín – this one flavoured with rhododendrons – and several bamboo mugs of tongba, millet beer.
At Tumling, after a toasty night under thick blankets in an unheated mountain hut, Jamie dutifully got up before dawn for a hike up to Tonglu, hoping to catch the sun hitting Kanchenjunga through his lens. Unfortunately this vision lasted only a few seconds before the clouds came lumbering across the horizon, gobbling up the mountain and valley.
On our way back Chitray (‘Bamboo House’) was a welcoming pit stop comprising a collection of timber and bamboo buildings which make up a farm, complete with goats, dogs and chickens mooching around the yard. The largest building doubles as a family home and workers’ kitchen. We fell into the warm, dimly-lit dining room, steam pouring off us, and knocked back masala chai while chomping on biscuits. After a while a young Lama and his entourage of monks arrived and were ushered – with great respect and much bowing – into the back room. We noticed an old man sitting in the shadows between the kitchen and dining room. He smiled and raised his glass to us, so we nodded and waved hello back.
Eager to learn his story, we chatted to Chitray Pala (‘Bamboo House Papa’) and through Pemba learned he was 80 years old. Fifty-eight years previously he was imprisoned in Tibet by the Chinese. He knew he would never get out alive, so after twelve days escaped taking his mother and father with him. He didn’t know how many miles they walked over the mountains, but he reckoned it took two months to get to here, where they built their first farm out of the local bamboo. He finished his coffee and went off to be blessed by the Lama.
As we finished our second cup of tea Chitray Pala shouted goodbye to us and set off up the hill in the rain. We watched him disappear into the mist, carrying a heavy piece of corrugated iron on his back.
“He’s going to mend one of the shacks on his farm,” Pemba told us.
We didn’t see much of Kanchenjunga Massif during the trek, the clouds never parted at the right time. But we found other delights: we saw garlands of orchids hanging from forest trees; we filled our tummies with wild strawberries; we spotted eagles flying beside us; and watched maroon-clad Tibetan monks and a young Lama playing football with a can.
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